Wise Science

Can we separate the perceiver from the perceived?

That question came up recently while steeped in a conversation about the Buddhist theory of dependent origination with Tsoknyi Rinpoche. Dependent origination, in brief, says that “everything that seems to exist as an independent entity actually takes shape as part of a great web of cause and effect,” as I explained in chapter 17 of my book Emotional Alchemy.

We started to reflect on the implications of this concept for science. At one point Rinpoche observed, “How people perceive is already conditioned – how we see the object is dependent on the subject” – in other words, our own conditioning determines our perceptions.  “This is exactly the point I feel needs to be investigated in the process of scientific research: the extent to which the object of perception is affected by the conditioning of the scientist doing the research,” I told him.

I’ve had this gnawing question for years, and have raised it with both scientists and Buddhist teachers, most often at Mind & Life meetings. The scientists I’ve met over the years at these meetings are remarkable people. For one, in order to spend a week in dialogue with the Dalai Lama and a group of scientists, contemplatives and scholars, they’re willing to tolerate the long trip to Dharamasala, the remote Himalayan town where the Dalai Lama resides in India. Dharamsala is a magical place, but like many Indian villages without the creature comforts that we Westerners take for granted – like clean water, traffic lights and emissions control.

I’m always inspired by the effort and sincerity these scientists put into their presentation of scientific theory and findings to make them clear and accessible. It’s a wonderful learning opportunity. Over the years I’ve been struck by the flexibility and openness of these scientists to explore new perspectives on their own fields as they listen to presentations by contemplatives and insightful comments from the Dalai Lama

But there’s something I’ve wished for over all these years that expands the notions of standard empirical research: for scientists to have a method for clarifying their own perceptions. In conversations with some of these scientists I’ve strongly encouraged research itself be more thoroughly “investigated” utilizing a different means, suggesting that the Buddhist practice of investigation, or critical analysis, be used.

When I mentioned this to the University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson, he said that there had been a tradition called “wise science,” in which researchers would make an effort to investigate their own biases and overcome rigid ways of seeing. Sometimes this would take the form of making close observations, then taking a break and returning with a freshened awareness and different perspective – doing this over and over until they felt greater conviction in the accuracy of their conclusions. Only then would they publish their findings.

I had a similar conversation with Amherst College quantum physicist Arthur Zajonc, another Mind and Life-connected scientist, who echoed Davidson’s viewpoint. He noted that where scientists used to hold off on making claims, returning to their data over and over from many perspectives until they felt they had the most accurate interpretation, sometimes today there can be no time lost getting into print.

This wise science perhaps came more naturally in an earlier era, one less pressured by the urgent need to get funding for the next bit of research, or to rush to publication for job security. Both these scientists nodded to such constraints on the profession these days, which make taking the time required for reflection in wise science seem a luxury. Wise science suggests a different way of knowing, allowing more room for reflection, spontaneous insights, and greater clarity – like a camera lens coming in to better focus.

Recently after a Mind & Life meeting in Dharamsala I had a meeting with Dalai Lama where I told him about these conversations about wise science. I encouraged the Dalai Lama to stress the practice of critical investigation to scientists as a means to fine tune their scientific inquiry.  He was interested in the term “wise science.” After a reflective pause, he said, “Yes, good idea. But it depends on the interest and openness of the scientists themselves.”

I’m simply raising these questions, ones that keep coming up for me as I’ve sat through these dialogues between the Dalai Lama, Buddhist scholars, and scientists, and quietly talked with participants. My hope is to stir some deeper reflection on the nature of research, and to explore theories and practices in other domains – from Buddhist philosophy to cognitive science – that might make science a bit wiser. This need seems most pressing in the areas of science that explore the mind itself.

Wise science, for example, could be practiced by applying Buddhist methods of sustained investigation into the mind, examining our assumptions that things are a certain way. While we so readily assume we know how things are, with this systematic investigation we may come to realize that what we thought to be so actually is not.

One possible tool for sharpening the investigative abilities of science in this domain might be combining the practice of investigation with “calm abiding” one-pointedness, to help the inner wisdom of the scientific observer reveal itself. This could especially help to clarify the outcome of research on the nature of the mind itself (for more details on the practice of investigation, see Chapter 3 of Emotional Alchemy).

From the Buddhist viewpoint, science today more closely represents “correct relative truth.” But there are domains of understanding that go beyond. As Tsoknyi Rinpoche mentioned, “For scientists to have a deep understanding to the Buddhist principles of interdependence, you need to clarify the state of mind of the scientist.”

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